And now, the Great Wait.
Everything moved quickly in the hours and days after the NHL paused its season last week. Players were urged to self-quarantine and remain close to their playing city in hopes that teams could reopen training facilities. Then, with borders closing and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending against gatherings of more than 50 people until May, the directive changed and everyone was permitted to scatter.
The quarantined hockey world is now hunkering down and pondering the future. There’s a lot of conversations and ideas flying around in text messages, but little clarity with the spread of the COVID-19 virus still picking up steam across the continent.
The clearest hint of where the NHL is headed came from deputy commissioner Bill Daly during an appearance on The Athletic’s “Two-Man Advantage” podcast, when he spoke of the league’s priorities in the months ahead: “The only definite for us is we certainly don’t want to do anything around a resumption of play this season that will impact our ability to have a full season next year.”
That clearly sketches out the timelines at play here.
It tells us that crowning a 2020 Stanley Cup champion hinges on finding a window where it’s safe to conduct some kind of playoff tournament between mid-May — when the CDC could potentially change its recommendations on how many people can safely gather — and mid- to late-July, which is believed to be the absolute latest the league would be willing to stretch its season.
If that’s not possible, we’re looking at a lost year.
Playing into August would disrupt the season to follow and Daly made it clear that’s off the table. What this revelation does is rule out at least two ideas being kicked around in NHL circles in recent days:
• One, emerging from conversations with team executives, revolves around doing a complete restart to the 2019-20 season whenever it’s safe to do so. It could be August, September or October. Doesn’t matter. The plan would be to finish the final 15 per cent of the regular season plus playoffs, then pause for free agency signings and the entry draft, before starting 2020-21.
• The other, bubbling amongst some players, is a similar concept that’s more rigid in structure. Complete the regular season in July, hold the playoffs in August and September, break for a shortened October off-season and commence 2020-21 in November.
There are a number of reasons why it’s believed the NHL doesn’t favour either of these approaches. Chief among them is how it impacts teams way out of the playoff race — can you really ask members of the last-place Detroit Red Wings, for example, to return from the COVID-19 hiatus, go through a training camp and then play 11 meaningless regular-season games before waiting out the playoffs and another off-season?
Then you also have to account for potential building availability issues, the financial impact of delaying the return of meaningful hockey to a number of markets even longer than it already will be and the fact that some contending teams already view 2019-20 as a tainted season.
Everyone wants to win a Stanley Cup, sure, but it’s hard to imagine that achievement feeling equally as satisfying now as it would conclude an uninterrupted campaign.
To make a betting analogy, the NHL is currently on the equivalent of a bad run at the blackjack table and won’t spend all night trying desperately to salvage the session. It’s already committed to when it will get up and walk away if things don’t change for the better.
That’s a smart approach under the circumstances.
As unsatisfying as it could end up feeling if there’s no real conclusion to a season where 1,082 games were played — and as disappointing as that will be to the organizations with legitimate championship aspirations — there will be a point where the focus needs to shift to letting the business reset and recover.
And that point is probably still at least a month away.
The NHL hopes that a period of self-quarantine for players will eventually allow it to open mini training camps by early May. That needs to happen before any games are played. In the meantime, the league plans to monitor the situation closely and lean on the relevant authorities for guidance.
“We’re not equipped to say ‘the pandemic’s over,”’ commissioner Gary Bettman said during a recent appearance on Hockey Central at Noon. “There are going to be medical people at the highest level who are going to tell us.”
And, so, this is where we are.
The decision on when it’s safe for the NHL to potentially resume may rest in someone else’s hands, but it’s clear the league has already figured out how it will react to that news: The Cup will be lifted by July, or it won’t be lifted at all this year.